Smelty John: A Story of First Times, Complete with Happy Ending
Like Hamish and Lee before me, I’ve come down with a bad case of the fly fishing bug that’s been doing the rounds recently. For me it started out as one of those strange obsessive internet journeys that I suppose is unique to the current generation in which I’d devoured every blog devoted to the sport, had watched countless Youtube clips on the art of double hauling and had the finer points on the life cycle of the mayfly committed to memory before I’d even handled a rod.
A chance came finally on a trip down to Daylesford spa country in Victoria for friend’s 30th birthday party. I drank less than I should have and called it a night much earlier than is generally socially acceptable because I’d lined a fishing trip on the sly for the following day and wanted to be fresh for a relatively early start. Hamish, myself and our respective cousins braved some pretty atrocious sleety conditions in a day whose highlights included getting zapped by an electric fence and all without so much as a nibble. And yet all in, the day was somehow a success – a chance to practice some basic casting skills and get to know a pretty part of the countryside I probably never would have had the excuse to otherwise. Perhaps recognising some of the early symptoms he had recently experienced himself, Hamish offered to let me keep the setup I had been using all day, one he had gotten from Lee in a similar act of “pay it forward” (which probably makes me Helen Hunt or something).
Back in Canberra with time to kill before the weekend I had a chance to iron out some of the kinks in my casting technique at a local pond. I took a trip out to Pratt’s tackle and bought a random selection of flies based mainly on colour and proximity to the point where I happened to be standing, much to the amusement of the guy sitting behind the counter. I’d heard a story once from my prone-to-exaggeration uncle years ago which involved catching trout from the creek that ran at the bottom of our family property in the Southern Highlands and so newly armed with my lucky dip of flies I organised a weekend trip with my better half based on a rumour.
We were woken early at 7:00 am, which is probably late to fly fisherman and roughly mid-afternoon to a dairy farmer, by a sharp rap on the door by said dairy farmer who does a favour for my family by checking on the largely vacant house on a weekly basis. Old mate was dressed in his usual slick fashion comprising shit-spattered gumboots, baby-blue one-piece coveralls stretched around his ample belly and a fuzzy hunting cap with the ears pulled down. He was in good spirits and I asked him if it would be ok to fish the dam and creek than ran along the edge of his property, he said “that’d be fine”, but in a way that made me feel like I’d be wasting my time.
Roughly a week deep into my fly fishing career, I didn’t really care if there were fish in the creek or not. I had read enough accounts to know that some unlucky beginners waited a whole season to land their first trout. It was more just the inkling of an outside chance of a slim possibility of fish being in there and that would be enough to keep me interested for a session or two. I started off in the dam and tied on what I thought were wet flies that behaved like dry flies until they got really wet and then they behaved like wet flies. The sun was out, the water was clear, the cows were mooing and I was having a great time in my gumboots and cap pretending I was an old English toff out bunburying for the weekend.
Pretty soon I lost two flies that I had grown attached enough to give nicknames to in quick succession and that jolted me out my day dreaming. I decided to switch tactics and go for a reconnoitre firstly down-, and then upstream of the dam. Downstream looked interesting with various promising pools and runs but was carved quite deep into the hillside and thick foliage put casting beyond my laughable skill level. An angry looking heifer stopped my wander in that direction – cows are intimidating up close. I went upstream of the dam and flicked a couple casts into some deeper pools but was beginning to run out of faith and was about ready to call it lunchtime. The creek was much narrower and shallower than I remembered probably owing to the twenty something intervening years since I had been down there last during which time I had gotten significantly taller and wider. Walking along a high bank around a bend at a point where the water was only about a metre wide was where I first spotted him. Hanging out in the deeper water on the broad side of the bend, lazing in an eddy, was a smallish but very real rainbow trout. The rumours were true! I couldn’t have been more excited than if I’d actually landed him. The water was moving a little brisker here over a rocky bottom and only about 30 cm deep – exactly like the books told me it would be. In my head, pieces of the jigsaw were slowly falling into place.
I was on my hands and knees just enjoying the spectacle of watching without him knowing I was there. I had a chance to snap a picture on my early model iPhone which didn’t turn out so well and started to gather myself in preparation of making a cast. I had on some kind of green and red woolly bugger type thing and decided it would be as good as any. In the process of stripping line he got wind of my presence and took off. I wasn’t that disappointed feeling almost actually like casting would’ve spoiled the whole situation somehow. And anyway, I was taking the long view of having private access to a creek that nobody else ever fished right on the doorstep of my family property a couple hours from home. I walked some way further up stream with my eye better attuned and spotted two others racing up and down very aware of my presence and made plans to return at sunset.
Emily and I spent the rest of the afternoon getting our toff on in Budawang over $4.50 coffees and Jerusalem artichoke soup amongst the Sydney Country Estate set with their bony thinness and white-on-beige clothes driving shiny new volvo 4WDs. Popped in to the pub for a cheeky pint and discovered the amazing view across the valley to the Wingecarribee reservoir from the beer garden and filed that one away for a future visit. We drove down to the Fitzroy reservoir above the famed falls which is stocked with various species of salmonid and natives too. I gave Emily some introductory casting lessons in the sunshine against the good advice of whomever who said that you shouldn’t give or receive casting instruction to/from anyone you have an emotional connection with that you have an interest in keeping. Luckily she had a natural style and our relationship is intact.
Later on, back at the ranch, the sun was beginning to dip so I made the trek down the hill a little giddy with anticipation. I got out onto the dairy flats and couldn’t make up my mind what I was going to do. Should I head straight to the bend where I saw the first fish or should I have a little practice first downstream to make sure my game was tight first? I decided on the latter but only distractedly flicked a couple casts over some fishy looking logs and got snapped off. That happened to be my last wet fly that I had a non-derogatory nickname for and therefore any confidence in. I was down to a bread fly which I had picked up specifically for Canberra carp, a yellow feathery number the guy in the shop called a goldfish which had a great action if you actually managed to get it to sink which turned out to be really difficult when you haven’t got any of that magic sinky solution and lastly, a bright orange pom-pom which I later heard described as a cheese twistie which I picked up mainly so that I could see it during casting practice. In desperation, I tied on Mr Cheese Twistie but I knew I definitely wasn’t starting with my A team.
I snuck up to the bend where my friend had been enjoying the sunshine earlier in the day and… nothing. The books had lied, this was supposed to be the magic hour. Or maybe that was only applied in summer? I seemed to recall reading a theory somewhere deep in the literature of internet wisdom that in winter, trout fed when their metabolic rate was high which was directly linked to their body temperature and thus when the water was warmer in the middle of the day. A little crestfallen I kept wandering upstream finking here and there into random pools where I could. I placed a nice first cast into a deeper pool and let the fly sink to the bottom and drift its length and to my total and utter astonishment I saw a flash of colour come out from the deep. He didn’t take, but his interest was piqued and that’s when I thought that maybe old Cheesy has some game after all. After that I changed tactics figuring the fish were still hungry but settled in wherever fish settle at the bottom of creeks for the night. I started working deeper, slower moving pools with a gentler drifting action than before.
The sun was setting and I was nearing the end of the paddock and therefore the property for which I had permission to fish. Above a small seeping tributary that comes from a spring on my property, the character of the creek changed. The water was a little clearer, straighter and narrower and I sized up a now fishy looking pool. I cast long and let Cheesy drift the length along the unseen bottom. There was a strange and sudden boil that didn’t quite break the surface tension and before I knew it I was on. It’s all a bit of a blur but I think I instinctively (read: accidentally) set the hook with a surprised lift of the rod and in my excitement probably bossed the fish a little too much too early in the play. There was much splashing about as he broke the surface a few times and so I knew he looked trouty, though I’m not sure what else I was expecting. There was plenty of fight still left in him but he had nowhere to go really and I managed to shepherd him downstream to a narrow fork in the creek where I thought I might be able to wrangle him in. The banks were pretty steep and I had no net but finally managed to get him onto the grass after a couple of inelegant aborted attempts. What stared at me now was a much bigger fish than I had expected, a little lean but measuring 46 cm in all. He had a snaky meanness about him due to the prominent hooked jaw and I was struck dumfounded as to what to do next. I’ve dispatched countless fish with my bare hands from my spearfishing days but this was so out of context – freshwater? In the middle of a cow paddock surrounded by grass and trees? I remember thinking he smelled the same vaguely fishy smell as saltwater fish but everything else was odd. I eventually snapped out of it and took care of him deftly. He posed calmly for a few photographs and then we headed off together back up the hill to the house just as the gloaming settled into the valley.